Hiep Nguyen developed his work ethic at a young age as he watched his parents start over in the United States after leaving war-torn Vietnam with next to nothing.
“I just cannot fathom starting over. ... I feel a sense of awe and indebtedness,” the Los Altos resident said.
With his parents’ support, Nguyen earned two degrees in mechanical engineering from UCLA, which led to a job in the aerospace industry and later product marketing. In 2003, he switched careers to real estate and is now one of the top agents in the country.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I got my real estate knowledge from my mom,” said Nguyen, whose mother, Hanh Hoang, juggled minimum-wage jobs, took an English class and later secured a loan that enabled her to invest in property.
At 7 years old, Nguyen and his family of six fled from the fall of Saigon in South Vietnam in 1975. Nguyen’s memory is engraved with the visual of his three sisters and mother holding onto a European Vespa, just under 6 feet long, as his father steered with one hand and held a gun in the other.
“It was just complete chaos,” Nguyen recalled. “People were trying to go to the airport, trying to go to the boat dock to try and get out of Vietnam.”
His family sought refuge in the U.S. and arrived at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, where tents and military men were scattered along the shoreline.
“I just remember that it wasn’t normal,” Nguyen said. “We would line up to get food and line up to take showers. You would line up for everything.”
It wasn’t his father’s first time at a military camp. Hung Nguyen served as a captain in the Vietnam army for 10 years, until the South fell to communism in a war with the North. He took a series of blue-collar jobs in the U.S., including as a machinist working for $2.37 per hour up to 80 hours per week.
Switching career paths
Nguyen said his dad speaks softly, but his words have always carried a lot of weight. However, when Hung wanted his only son to become a doctor, Nguyen resisted.
“I would have probably been a doctor if he didn’t push so hard,” Nguyen said of his father. “But because he did, I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going into engineering because I like mechanical stuff – I like making stuff.’”
Nguyen spent nine years as a mechanical engineer after earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees from UCLA.
He changed course in 2000, becoming a product manager for a medical technology company. But the travel and time behind a desk wasn’t for Nguyen, so eight years later he sought a career that would complement his skills, get him in front of people and still leave time for family. Enter real estate.
“I actually found the transition quite easy,” Nguyen said. “You have to be self-disciplined and motivated. The biggest challenge in real estate is that you’re not guaranteed your next client.”
The first home he built in 2009 went on the market soon after the 2008 housing crash. Unsure of the market, he was wary about his career change.
“The best thing that came out of that year was I got two new clients that were impressed that I actually built the home from scratch. They knew that I knew about construction and homes,” Nguyen said. “That’s how I got my first two clients in Los Altos. Then once the market started picking up, I started getting more clients, and then the rest is history.”
Nguyen now ranks among the top 1 percent of Intero Real Estate agents worldwide, based on sales production. He said he averages approximately 25 transactions per year in the Bay Area, well above the national average of 11, according to the National Association of Realtors.
And yet he notes that his biggest success was winning the spelling bee in third grade. His spelling bee certificate still adorns his mother’s wall.
Nguyen described himself as a people person, finding his own happiness when he sees his clients smile when dreaming about their future home.
“When you are able to share to the client, ‘You got it’ – nothing beats that,” Nguyen said.